Why I Like Retro Tech

I'm interested in retro tech that either allowed humans to more easily express themselves, or allowed more humans easily to express themselves (by lowering the cost of doing so), and in so doing, advanced the cultural and intellectual development of the species.

In an era in which we're accustomed to the most mundane things being heavily digitally mediated (have you ever watched someone using their smartphone's selfie cam as a mirror?), electromechanical devices intrigue us because they are direct, tactile, and visceral—there is a very close connection between the human actuating the device and the device producing something.

Retro tech devices have stories to tell. They can be passed down in your family. You can ask “Imagine what could have been typed on this typewriter,” or “Imagine who might have played this piano.” Digital devices are short-lived: a 10-year useful life is rare, and only collectors own 30+ year old devices.

Retro tech devices will survive a fall of civilization. They are easy to understand and fix, if not necessarily to manufacture (typewriters have hundreds of custom-shaped moving parts that must be cast and assembled just so). A typewriter's mechanical design makes its functioning manifest. Electronic devices, in contrast, are opaque: open up a computer and you have no clue as to how it works. Of course, if civilization actually does fall, it will be awhile before we’re worried about reviving retro tech devices, but still.

Retro tech is direct-to-your-senses without mediation. A typewriter produces visible glyphs on tangible cellulose. A guitar conveys sound directly to your ear by compressing and rarefying the air between it and you. Even Polaroid photos, whose technology is not straightforward to re-create, can be experienced directly and without mediation.

Some retro technologies are the essence of compromise: they succeeded by making existing expensive technology accessible to many more consumers by lowering its cost. Audio cassettes had inferior sound fidelity than did reel-to-reel magnetic tape, but they were more rugged and players could be made inexpensively, enabling not only a new mass market for music but an explosion of self-recording by nonprofessionals.  VHS cassette recordings were far inferior to television broadcasts and almost laughably inferior to celluloid film, but they made it possible for consumers not only to record broadcasts but record and distribute their own video, kickstarting an independent filmmaking industry.

Other retro technologies were immediately superior to the alternatives, as typewriters were for quickly composing highly legible text. But typewriters were still inferior to movable-type typesetting; it would take desktop publishing in the late 1980s to displace the latter.